Sayed’s soft voice competed to be heard in a noisy and full East Anchorage classroom in December. Cultural orientation was beginning, he translated from English to Pashto, and it would continue all week.
Twenty adults filled the room, men in the front, women in back, some kids held in their arms and others running around. Each recently arrived in Anchorage from Afghanistan with help from Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, or RAIS, an arm of Catholic Social Services. RAIS hosted the class to help them settle in.
The staff and students discussed where to turn for help with health care, employment and food. But first they practiced writing their basic personal information in English.
“Who wants to be brave and stand up and tell me your name and where you are from?” asked Brigit Reynolds, an education and employment manager. Sayed relayed the question to the room. Many of them had never left their home country before, he said.
“My state is Alaska. My zip code is 99504,” one man in the second row said. “I am from Afghanistan.”
Sayed, a reception and placement coordinator for RAIS, feels proud to offer help and be a trusted adviser to Anchorage’s growing Afghan community. RAIS is helping resettle 100 Afghan people here in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal after 20 years of war in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover.
Reynolds called Sayed invaluable in helping the newcomers find their way in Alaska.
“Having somebody that they know, that looks like them, that talks like them, that kind of understands their background as well, makes them feel super comfortable and more willing to ask me questions,” she said.
It’s not just their words and culture Sayed understands, but also their circumstances. Months ago, he too left Afghanistan to free his life from a danger so ever-present that it had felt like normal daily life. Even though it had taken him six years to get a visa, it was hard to leave when the time came, he said. It would mean separating from his family for now. But as a former interpreter who worked side-by-side with the U.S military, the choice was potentially life or death.
“Even if I stayed there, I wouldn’t be able to help them,” he said of his family.
Sayed’s flight departed Afghanistan on Aug. 2, just weeks before chaos enveloped that same airport as people scrambled to leave the seized city. Months later, he’s in Anchorage, beginning his own new life and helping some of his countrymen do the same. He shared the story of what led to his departure, but asked that the Anchorage Daily News share only his first name due to his safety concerns.
A decade ago, it was hard to imagine such drastic measures. In 2011, Sayed worked for a logistics company that contracted with U.S. operations in Kabul. He delivered office supplies and furniture, items they in turn used to support the Afghan government.
Rather than fearing association with U.S. forces back then, he looked forward to speaking with them directly. It was a chance to refine his English skills and participate in the progress he saw underway in his city.
“I was seeing a lot of development everywhere ...,” Sayed said. “That created a hope for us that we are on the right path and we are going to the right direction.”
That sense of optimism had been hard-earned for a person born into the horrors of civil war. In the early to mid-’90s, factions vied for control of Afghanistan. His family, sometimes caught in the crossfire, moved often. Sayed recalls experiencing hunger. Their home was looted three times, he said.
“We were just moving from place to place to place, just to survive,” Sayed said of himself, his mother and two siblings.
He recalls the morning after the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996. The following morning, residents were instructed to come to a square near the presidential palace to witness the gruesome hanging of former president Mohammad Najibullah and his brother. Sayed was about 7 years old.
“Then we decided we cannot stay here,” Sayed said.
Sayed’s mother, the family’s only provider, moved them to Nasir Bagh, a refugee camp for tens of thousands in Peshawar, Pakistan. There they constructed a makeshift shelter from rocks and plastic sheeting and lived in it for the first two of the four years they stayed at Nasir Bagh. As a boy, Sayed worked as a street vendor and recalls joining other children for classes in a stiflingly hot tent.
“It wasn’t a perfect school, but it was at least a place where you can learn something,” he said.
His family stayed in Peshawar after Nasir Bagh closed. From ages 11 to 18, Sayed wove Afghan rugs with his siblings at home. When he could afford them, he took computer courses and studied CD-ROM tutorials. He began to learn English also, motivated by a desire to understand the dialog in American action movies like “Die Hard,” “Mission Impossible” and “Rambo.”
In 2007, Sayed and his family returned to Kabul.
“I still remember the good feeling I had when I entered my country in a truck,” he said. “I was really feeling proud that I’m going to my country. I’m going to go there and be a part of the reconstruction.”
Sayed saw the U.S. as a leader in the effort to build a future for Afghanistan. After a year of making deliveries, his company then maintained perimeter screens, doors and fencing for New Kabul Compound, a hub for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. In 2012, he left that job to work as an interpreter directly with the U.S. Army in Kandahar, 500 kilometers away.
At the governor’s palace there, he translated between Afghan provincial officials and the U.S. soldiers who advised them. He called the experience, which exposed him to firsthand work in international diplomacy and military operations, “like a college for me.” High-ranking U.S. officers considered him a part of their team, he said. That respect that remains a point of pride.
“On paper, I was a linguist,” Sayed said. “But I was doing a job of cultural adviser for them.”
It was also work he thought contributed to the betterment of his homeland “so that it could somehow help my people in Afghanistan to make a good government or provide good government service.”
But the work also provided stark insight into the danger that surrounded him. Part of his job involved translating reports about security incidents into English. Some detailed the bounty extremist groups paid for the killing of Afghan people friendly to U.S. forces, including Afghan military members and police.
Linguists had the highest price on their head, he recalled — 100,000 Afghani, or about $1,800 at the time.
“I translated a report that someone was killed because the enemy found a dollar note in their pocket,” he said.
Some of Sayed’s friends who served in the Afghan military were killed. Concerned for his safety while working, he sometimes requested not to be photographed or filmed. Once, when asked by a U.S. official if had ever been threatened, he made a point to clarify.
“If they found out that I’m an interpreter and working for the U.S. government, they will not threaten me,” he said. “They will kill me just right on the spot.”
In 2014, he began his application for a Special Immigrant Visa, a possibility extended to a limited number of Afghans who worked with the U.S. “I decided I have to use this,” he said. “I have to take this chance.”
He also carried on with his work, even when the U.S. and ISAF shrank their presence in Kandahar. Pay and privileges were reduced at one point, he said. Flights home were expensive and leave was restricted. Some linguists quit. Military officers with whom he worked closely asked him to stay.
“I just stayed there for my team, to complete the mission,” he said.
‘You can leave’
Sayed returned to Kabul and found work as a project supervisor for a construction company that served the U.S.-supported Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan. He supervised 70 people at three CNPA compounds and worked regularly with American contractors.
The long application process for his Special Immigrant Visa continued into 2015. But it slowed in the years that followed, then seemed to stop entirely, he said, possibly because of U.S. political leadership changes and, more recently, the pandemic. What remained was the danger he faced in daily life.
“Every day there was somebody assassinated by unknown people,” Sayed said. “Maybe there was people looking for me. Maybe not. But if they knew I was working with the U.S. Army, definitely they would’ve done something.”
In May 2020, an email landed that Sayed thought would never come. He was directed to get a medical exam and complete other final steps toward receiving his visa. His family had grown in the years since he first applied, and he felt unprepared to resume planning for a move to the U.S.
“I was waiting for this two weeks for five years,” he said.
His wife, who worried for his safety, supported him.
“She told me, ‘You can leave,’ ” he said.
His departure in midsummer came just before the rapid takeover of the Afghan government by the Taliban. Sayed didn’t think it could happen so quickly. Prior to then, he felt confident that the Afghan military was prepared to defend the nation, and thought the U.S. withdrawal must be evidence of that.
“The international community will not let that happen, because we know how much the international community has spent in Afghanistan, how much sacrifices they gave, how much sacrifices we gave,” he said he thought at the time. “Many, many people died to have at least a government.”
Sayed thinks his flight was one of the last ones to lift off in August before commercial airlines stopped operating from Kabul. On a broadcast weeks later, he caught a glimpse of an airport chair where he sat and waited to leave. It had been destroyed.
“If I stayed five more days, I wouldn’t be able to leave,” he said.
A new start
Sayed landed in Alaska on Sept. 4. Though he first went to Colorado from Afghanistan, he moved to Anchorage a month later to stay with a friend. Anchorage is interesting and beautiful, he said, and he has found its people friendly and supportive. He’s adjusting to having to cook for himself and wash his own clothes.
In his role with RAIS, Sayed is one of the first to greet newly arrived Afghan people at the airport. Carrying two phones and a thick notebook, it’s his job to answer questions, ease confusion and help them get what they need.
They call on him days, nights and weekends, he said.
“I don’t mind. I just keep answering,” he said.
“It’s very hard if you don’t know the language and you’re in a city you know nothing about,” Sayed said. “You don’t know the people. You don’t know the streets. Even the stores. It’s totally different.”
To date, RAIS has helped resettle 90 Afghan people in Alaska, many of whom have no extended family ties in other states, according to program director Issa Spatrisano. The RAIS program coordinates with a network of community partners to secure housing, provide furnishings and give guidance on education and employment. In addition to the 100 people from Afghanistan, RAIS will also help relocate 130 refugees from other parts of the world this fiscal year.
“RAIS is doing the same work we always do. We greet you at the airport. We take you to an apartment that we already set up for you. … We’re bringing you into the office, doing your intake, helping you get a job,” Spatrisano said.
Sayed said his wife, with whom he speaks every day, reports that life is difficult in Afghanistan. His employment with RAIS in Anchorage will help support his family until they can be here, he said. In the meantime, he sends pictures to his children to share the novelty of his new life in Alaska: the wintry landscape, supermarkets where everything is in one place, animals in the wild or at the zoo.
“It was very interesting for my kids that these types of animals exist somewhere in the planet,” he said.
Sayed said he never expects help from anyone. His strength comes from his experiences with hardship and the influence of his mother. In Anchorage, he feels safer, but the feeling of relief is incomplete.
“Life is not easy. I might not be having any security issues here, but I have my family there…,” he said. “I maybe feel secure here, (but) at the same time I’m insecure there.”